I'm passionate about the topic of aging parents. In fact, I did my Master's thesis on elderly parents' expectations of their adult children. I'm sure this interest came from being so close with my grandmother as a child. Because she lived with us, I grew accustomed to interacting with an aging adult on a daily basis — something most kids these days don't experience.
I also had a great role model in my mother. The way my mother took care of my grandmother so well made an indelible impression on me. I came to understand at a very young age the different stages of the aging process and how the roles between parents and child change.
Now I'm in the role of caregiver. Just last weekend I helped my 76-year-old mother and 80-year-old father downsize into their new condominium after living for 37 years in the same house. What I learned is that this was a move they should have made 10 to 15 years ago; it was hard for them emotionally and physically.
By the time our parents reach the age at which they start exhibiting physical and cognitive decline, we may be busy raising a family and pursuing a career. Taking on the added burden of caring for aging parents is physically and emotionally draining.
It's not an easy task, but if we try to understand our parents' new stage in life, we may develop greater compassion for them and be able to interact with them more effectively and with less frustration.
Here are eight "Cue Cards," or quick behavioral prompts that will improve how you get along with your aging parents and will make their lives better.
1. Put yourself in their shoes.
Aging is a series of losses — loss of employment, health and energy, friends, mobility and independence. If one day you woke up and were unable to drive your car, for example, how would you feel? You'd have to completely change your routine! As our parents progressively give up aspects of their former lives, it's typical for them to feel angry, depressed, and isolated. Next time your parents are crabby, needy, or unpleasant, try to imagine yourself in their situation before you react.
2. Let them make their own decisions.
As much as possible, let aging parents make their own decisions, assuming they are of sound mind. Adult children tend to forget that their parents are 20 or more years older and wiser than they are. The absolute worst thing adult children can do is be domineering or treat them like children.
3. Be a household problem detective.
A thoughtful way to help your parents is to walk around their home with an eye for potential problems. Are there grab bars and handrails? Is the flooring uneven? Are emergency numbers posted by the phone? Are kitchen items easy to reach? Do they have well-lit hallways and stairs? Depending on where your parents live, government programs may have low-interest loans available to help seniors cover the cost of safety modifications for their home.
4. Encourage them to be physically active.
Physical activity is enormously beneficial for aging adults, who spend a lot of time sitting. Not only does it help alleviate feelings of depression and boost endurance, strength, and balance, but studies have shown that it may even delay or slow cognitive decline. Walking is wonderful exercise, and it's free. If they live in an area that offers organized exercise programs for seniors, encourage them to participate.
5. Encourage them to be socially active.
Fatigue, hearing or sight loss, fewer friends, and the inability to drive are all factors that can lead to your parents staying at home and becoming isolated. Talk to them about their friends, senior groups, and church or synagogue members. Find out what parks, the library, museums, nearby universities, and community centers offer in the way of organized activities. Some places even offer daily lunch programs for a nominal cost. Connecting with others is a wonderful antidote for depression.
6. Check in with them when you can — and just chat.
Some elderly folks who live on their own can go days without contact from others. If you live some distance from your parents or are very busy with work, family, or other obligations, set a reminder on your smartphone to call once a week to just check in. When I was researching my Master's thesis on what aging parents expect from their children, I found the number-one thing they wanted was just to hear from their kids. What a simple wish to fulfill!
7. Create a memory book if you notice memory problems.
As people age, their short-term memory gets worse. An activity that may help is reminiscing. Help them create a memory book. A scrapbook with photos of pets, places, and people from their past along with their names can help them recall distant memories. You can include space for them to add to it if they're capable of doing so. If you have time to make the book with your parents, it's not only a useful cognitive tool, but creates bonding time too.
8. Discuss caregiving issues with siblings and other family members.
Don't try to take everything on yourself, unless you have to! Keep family in the loop. In one family I know, every time one of the four daughters flies out for a visit, she sends an "Update on the Folks" to her sisters. That way, everyone knows what their parents' current health and home situation are, and they can coordinate visiting schedules and shared responsibilities.
Above all, be nice. Your parents are like a scarce, precious resource. They won't be here forever, and with a little effort, you can really make the remainder of their lives so much better. They'll appreciate it — and so will you when you're their age!
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